Sunday, July 10, 2016

China Needs Zimbabwe’s Support on South China Sea Dispute
July 7, 2016
Lovemore Chikova News Editor
Zimbabwe Herald

When The Herald last week published a story headlined: “Zim pledges support on China Sea dispute”, there was an array of responses from its readers. The story was based on a statement issued by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which followed President Mugabe’s reiteration to visiting Chinese

Vice Foreign Minister Zhang Ming that Zimbabwe backs China on the South China Sea dispute.

One of the reactions that caught my attention was from a reader who only identified himself as Dark Child (whatever that name means).

“Don’t know what the Foreign Affairs Minister is talking about here . . . we Zimbabweans have not been following anything with the so-called South China Sea dispute,” the comment read.

Dark Child’s revelations might actually be a reflection of how Zimbabweans are sometimes aloof to “hot” international issues.

The South China Sea dispute has a potential to cause a major international fall-out, which might actually see far away countries like Zimbabwe being affected.

That six countries, including the United States and China, are involved in this dispute shows the extent to which the case has been internationalised.

China has always been calling for dialogue in settling the dispute as a way of ensuring peace.

Zimbabwe’s reiteration and support of the position of China is a sure sign that the country is also playing its role in encouraging peace.

Like any other country, Zimbabwe should be following with keen interest developments in the South China Sea.

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has been seized with the matter for some time now.

ASEAN groups Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.

Of these countries, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei have claims over the South China Sea and some islands, which history shows have always belonged to China.

The nations claiming this part of the vast sea have been in recent times building new islands and installing airstrips for fighter jets and surveillance planes.

Zimbabwe’s call for the countries involved in the dispute to follow a peaceful path comes at the right time.

The Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague will next Tuesday issue a ruling on the dispute after it was approached by the Philippines in January 2013.

China has since rejected the court process, which it considers an attempt to circumvent justice by ignoring the historical truth about the South China Sea. The Asian country has also argued that the tribunal has no jurisdiction over the matter.

China also argues that the Philippines’ unilateral initiation of the arbitration runs counter to its promise and the basic international principles that arbitration should be jointly initiated by parties involved out of their own will.

It further asserts that the islands in the South China Sea have been within its territory since ancient times.

The Asian economic giant also argues that one of the disputed area, Nansha Islands, was never a Philippine territory as defined by various international treaties.

This means whatever the verdict of the tribunal, China regards the process as illegal and the result will be taken as null and void.

It will be important to watch what happens after the ruling in the Hague on Tuesday, which is widely expected to be in favour of the Philippines.

With the full backing of the United States, the Philippines will likely press ahead with implementing the court ruling by taking practical action to claim part of the territory.

This will put pressure on China’s consideration of regional peace and stability and commitment to solving territorial disputes and maritime delimitation through negotiation and consultation.

China has reiterated on several occasions that it does not want war in the South China Sea and that a sober reflection and hard look at history will easily solve the disputes.

So, China is unlikely to budge, but at the same time will not commit itself to military adventurism unless it is meant in defence.

Or maybe, China and the Philippines, together with other ASEAN nations, will pursue the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea they signed in 2002.

The declaration serves as the political framework for solving the dispute and is one of the relevant frameworks available for consultations over the matter.

It is important to note that the US is already preparing for the eventual ruling and has started increasing its military presence in the area, with more warships and aircraft being deployed.

A research fellow at Nanjing University Mr Liu Haiyang recently provided an insight into what is likely to happen in the event the award goes in the Philippines’ favour.

Supporters of the US were working on the belief that the arbitral award would have a legal effect as part of the international law, he said.

“However, any rules have exceptions,” he wrote recently. “In certain circumstances, the award itself may be regarded as a nullity.

“It is fairly generally accepted under international law that the excess of power may be treated as a nullity. That’s exactly the position taken by China: that the arbitral tribunal exercised jurisdiction ultra vires and any of its decisions have no legal effect.”

Arbitral awards are generally not easy to enforce and have to depend on the goodwill of both parties, unlike in a domestic legal system where the central government can enforce the law.

Observers note that the only exceptional case on enforcing arbitral awards lies with the International Court of Justice under article 94 of the Security Council which may enforce the decisions.

But going forward, the US is likely to exploit the general public’s misunderstanding of this part of the international law to equate China’s non-compliance with the arbitrary award to disregard of international law.

To buttress its justified position, China needs the support of all right thinking nations, including Zimbabwe.

In fact, the Asian nation has on several occasions appealed for support from African countries on the matter.

Addressing African journalists in China’s Yiwu city recently, director general for African Affairs Mr Lin Songtian said African countries should invoke the spirit of friendship in support of China.

His quotation is very useful: “We hope that our African brothers can fully understand the position of China in the South China Sea issue and the South China Sea arbitration, distinguish right from wrong, maintain objectiveness and impartiality, bring up justice and speak for China, jointly safeguard the legitimate rights and interests of developing countries, when it is needed.”

But it is the United States factor that is most worrying in the South China Sea dispute, with observers noting that it has no stake in the area, only economic and political interests.

They cite that about $1,2 trillion of US-traded goods go through this part of the sea every year and that the US has a mutual defence treaty with the Philippines which it must respect.

It seems the dispute in the South China Sea, located at the western edge of the Pacific Ocean to Asia’s southeast, will continue long after the Hague arbitral ruling.

What is of certainty is that China will continue working hard to ensure it maintains its sovereignty, while trying to find a peaceful solution.

But for how long the country will hold on in the face of so much adversity, no one can tell.

Perhaps Mr Songtian aptly summed up China’s precarious position on the matter: “The tree prefers calm, but the wind keeps blowing.

“Some people attempt to take the opportunity to make trouble around China, annoy China and contain China’s peaceful development.”

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